Chapter 3: The Combat
Players will find 95% of their time playing the game split between cutscenes and combat, so when it comes to gameplay, obviously the main focus is the combat system.
Modern RPG’s have all but abandoned the turn based combat system that dominated the genre in 80’s, 90’s, and early 00’s. Instead, the genre has turned to the uber-popular action-RPG sub-genre to help and make their games more exciting and engaging for players. The Final Fantasy series has experimented with this in their spinoffs, like Crisis Core, Lightning Returns, and Type-0, but the main series would not see a switch in combat styles until Final Fantasy 15. The series chose to continue that trend in Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which makes sense when considering that Tetsuya Nomura was directing the title.
Tetsuya Nomura’s initial claim to fame was his work on the original FF7 designing the characters and having some input on the cinematic look of the battle system, but since then has earned a name for himself as more then an artist. Nomura is the mind behind one of the most popular action-RPG series of all time, the Kingdom Hearts series, which is often regarded highly for it’s extremely engaging combat system. The system is designed to make players feel extremely powerful, with action prompts and make any encounter feel like it is straight out of your favorite anime.
His combat systems typically involve flashy combos that only require the player to hit the attack button multiple times, ally characters that move independently of the active character and have specific roles, a wide variety of enemy types in plain and flat battle arenas. Bosses are massive and escalate with the story, making every boss feel extremely satisfying to bring down. Unlike most of the RPG genre, Nomura’s system did not use numbers, using clear and distinct UI and visual indicators, making them more accessible and easier to understand.
Nomura had obviously figured out a winning formula for action-RPG combat early in his directing career, but has never been afraid to take risk and change things up in his games. Kingdom Hearts immediate sequel, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, was a card based combat system that required deck building and close exploration to find more powerful and helpful cards. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep went further, and explored the limit system that Kingdom Hearts 2 had introduced as a series of developing stages that happened naturally in a fight and could be escalated to unnatural and overwhelmingly powerful levels, while also eliminating magic as it had been established in the series and making it an ability that players had to balance in their limited ability slots.
Those changes were not always for the better however. Kingdom Hearts 3 was full of massive combat changes that were not very successful, specifically the “Attraction Flow” system and being way too easy. Kingdom Hearts was naturally a bit more difficult then the rest of the series, by virtue of having some of the clunkiest movement in the series, but the later titles that had better movement struggled to be difficult, opting to manufacture difficulty in ways that were not fun: attacks that could not be avoided or blocked, enemies that did not suffer any hit stun, juggle mechanics that often saw a player’s health rapidly depleted without any chance of recovery or escape. Round battle areas will often be used, but enemies will often using large, round, hitboxes that can penetrate the battle area wall and ultimately create a corner that traps the player. All AI are about as smart as a box of rocks.
Every staple of a Nomura combat system is on display in Final Fantasy 7 Remake, both the good, and the bad.
In almost every encounter, players will find themselves controlling Cloud, utilizing the massive Buster Sword and his plethora of abilities. Using square has Cloud swing his massive sword at the nearest enemy or the enemy that the player has selected with the lock-on (more on this in a bit). By pressing the square button multiple times, Cloud will string together attacks which can do more damage and stun certain enemies. By holding square, Cloud performs wider, sweeping attacks, that do less damage but can hit more enemies. The combos make the player feel extremely powerful, especially with as devastating as the final attack is.
The player also has a wide plethora of magic and abilities to help aide them in battle once they have built up their ATB gauge, which is filled gradually over time or by inflicting damage. By equipping various materia and equipment, the player can pick which abilities and spells that Cloud is capable of using. Spells do a ton of damage and can be used to exploit enemy weaknesses, but uses up MP which does not automatically replenish and is in limited demand. Spells also tend to fill the opponents stagger bar significantly faster.
Of course, Cloud is not the only hero available for the player to use, with various other team member available throughout the story. Barrett uses his massive gun arm to shoot enemies that are impossible to reach, Tifa uses striking martial arts techniques and high strength to strike opponents hard and fast, Aerith uses magic to exploit weaknesses. Unlike most RPGs, these characters do not fit into the traditional roles of partner characters, with only slight differences in stats to make them feel slightly different. This helps the rotation of characters in the party less detrimental to the progress of the player.
The player can switch between characters by using the D-pad during the battle, and whichever characters are not being controlled by the character are controlled by an ally AI system. This is where the problems begin for the combat system, because much like Nomura’s past systems, all of the ally AI share a collective two brain cells.
The enemies in this game telegraph their attacks, in very obvious ways with long buildups, giving the player plenty of time to maneuver and protect themselves from the attack. The ally AI however do not maneuver or protect themselves, but instead typically throw themselves into the attacks. Ally will lose health quickly and that forces the player to spend almost half, if not more, of their time healing and buffing the allies so that they do not die. These allies are more hindering to the player then helpful, and incentives the player to stick back and just throw healing spells and items at their allies the entire fight rather then engaging in the action.
The player also can not choose the target that the allies are fighting, which makes fights with various types of enemies. Cloud can not reach the flying enemies with any kind of success despite having a couple of air combos, which means the player has to rely on Barrett or Aerith to take those enemies out of the air. The only chose the player has to force that to happen is to switch to that character and attack that enemy manually, but when doing that, Cloud will also attempt to go after the flying enemy that he can not reach, leaving the lower defense, lower health, ranged character susceptible to the hard hitting enemies on the ground.
This is assuming the player can properly lock onto the enemy they want, because the lock on and enemy selection system for basic attacks is terrible. Cloud could be standing on top of one enemy on a completely separate part of the battle arena, but the moment the player hits square to punish the enemy underneath them, Cloud may just launch himself in the opposite direction and go after an enemy in the complete opposite side of the arena because the enemy selection decided the enemy that was off screen was definitely your target. This is especially jarring when facing enemies that require different types of offenses to be hurt, or bosses with multiple spots to hit, and often can cause a mistake that was not the player’s fault.
Ally AI also can not use their own abilities or magic, which means that the only option they have available to them is their basic attacks, thus further putting them in danger and making them even bigger burdens. The player can press R2 or L2 to choose their options for them, but that slows the fights down significantly, which is already a problem when the player is constantly in the menu healing the reckless allies. This game makes no use of a tactics or gambit system like other games in even the same genre, and it serves to the players detriment.
The Tetsuya Nomura staples do not stop with dumb AI however, with his tendencies to over do hitstun and juggling. Combos are constantly interupted by some small enemy on the other side of the battle area who launched a weak projectile. Air mobility is all but nonexistent, despite having multiple flying enemies who hit hard and fast. Magic attacks do way too much damage, and incentive not engaging with the battle and camping.
But enough about the heroes of the story, because the enemies are by and far the more exciting and interesting parts of the combat.
The enemies are best split into three groupings: bosses, mini-bosses, and basic enemies.
The basic enemies are exactly that, basic and not very interesting: A SOLDIER third-class with a pistol, some rats, some malfunctioning robots. Essentially, pull up the definition of EXP-farming and pictures of these enemies are right next to it. These enemies only take 10 to 15 seconds to finish off, and do not offer much in engaging gameplay, typically serving to lengthen the play time rather then do anything for the player. The player never has a need to grind experience or need to overcome a difficulty curve, so these enemies are completely unnecessary.
Making up a majority of the battles, these battle gets repetitive and boring quickly due to there not being very many different versions of these enemies. Sure, those enemies do come in a little variety (magical toads, flying wyverns, turrets doing turret things) but it is incredibly easy to make ten distinct enemies.
Battles with these enemies are extremely easy and serve as larger nuisances then anything else. Sure, during the first half of the game when the player’s team is still low level, you could attempt to do some fancy juggling tricks with these enemies, or try and beat them as flashy as possible, but once the team hits level 25-30, that is no longer viable as these enemies only take one or two hits. Why do even that, however, when just using Cloud, pressing triangle to go into punisher mode, and spamming square works ten times better?
The highlights of the enemies, and the whole game really, are the mini-bosses and bosses. These enemies are more detailed, more exciting, and highlight all of the good things that the combat can do. There are a ton of these battles and they help make up for the massive let down that the rest of the game provides.
The mini-bosses are introduced either through side quests or during important story beats. These enemies are typically just powered up and better versions of the basic enemies: the magic toad king, a large freezing wyvern, a faster mech with sawblades, a much bigger malfunctioning robot. These enemies hit harder, move faster, and make players use the full combat system. Any difficulty in the game is found in these battles and serve as a breath of fresh air (a group of mini-bosses actually claimed my only death of my playthrough).
These combat encounters do start introducing the combat problems discussed earlier (juggling, dumb AIs, too much hitstun) and give out less experience then the basic enemies, but they offer variety and exciting gameplay that much of the rest of the game lacks. There are tons of these fights sprinkled throughout the game and their designs obviously got much more love then the basic enemies.
The crown jewel of the combat, the absolute pinnacle of Final Fantasy 7 Remake is unquestionably the boss fights.
There are a ton of boss fights in this titles, and almost every single one of them is a joy to be a part of. Those bosses come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and types: giant mechs with every sci-fi weapon imaginable, a SOLDIER 1st class just as strong as Cloud who wants a good fight, a monstrosity that has spent their life in the sewers, lab experiments that have gone wrong and grown out of control. Most of these fights require a strategy (that is, a strategy outside of the normal combat’s press triangle and spam square strategy) and having your team up to date in equipment and materia.
There is nothing better in this game then hearing the music swell up in a cutscene and knowing that a boss battle is coming. Watching the boss reveal itself and trying to learn the boss’s patterns and weaknesses in the early parts of the battle are exciting and are exactly what this game was made for. The human bosses are all very similar in style and weakness, but make up for that with style and personality that makes there battles fun. Bosses like Hell House or Rufus Shinra are some of the best Action-RPG bosses ever, and Rude/Reno feel how anime fights look.
There are some bad boss battles sprinkled throughout the game (one of which is a Final Fantasy staple and it is disappointing to see who they get represented in this title) and unfortunately, most of them are found in the last 4 chapters, including the final boss. Even of the good bosses, their is only three or four bosses in this title that are actually difficult, and that cheapens the feeling of success that normally comes with beating bosses in video games. These bosses can be extremely long and drawn out, which makes their ease even more pronounced and frustrating.
Overall, the combat system has so much potential and feels like it could be something special to behold, but through rushed enemy design, poor enemy variety, a few clunky mechanics, and a lack of difficulty, the combat goes unrealized and, outside of the boss fights, is boring.